Though there’s no fitness plan mapped out in the Bible, it’s clear that the body is God’s temple and treating it as such is intertwined with spiritual wellbeing.
“Our society is so advanced now in my opinion, we can do so much more work with so much less physical output,” said Father Stephen Gadberry, administrator of St. Mary Church in Batesville and St. Cecilia in Newport. “We wear our minds out, we’re always thinking, analyzing, evaluating; we’re always … hoping, wishing. It’s easy for that to get all out of whack. We can’t be divided — we’re body and soul.”
Both Father Gadberry and Deacon Bud Baldwin, who serves at St. Joseph Church and St. Thomas Aquinas University Parish in Fayetteville, have a passion for fitness and can testify that reaching realistic physical health goals is not impossible.
Father Gadberry, 32, was raised on a farm in Wynne, but fitness was not “a conscious thing” until he joined the U.S. Air Force in 2005.
“Preparation going into the Air Force was when I started to be more conscious about being healthy and in shape and everything. Fitness really became something I enjoyed. Not just with the unit, but also exercising in my free time,” he said.
He served in the military for three years, but decided a religious vocation was his true calling. He was ordained a priest in 2016. He sets aside about an hour a day, six days a week mostly doing CrossFit, a work-out that combines weightlifting, calisthenics and cardio. It’s also an exercise philosophy that takes every day “functional movements performed at high intensity,” he said, like “bending over, picking up stuff, putting stuff over my head … mimicking those movements but with extra weight but in a way that hopefully doesn’t just make me fit now, but 50, 60 years down the road.”
That kind of dedication has paid off. Weightlifting is his favorite and said he has deadlifted 445 pounds and lifted 375 pounds with his back.
Father Gadberry has turned the rectory garage into a gym.
“They’re very supportive; they know I’m a human and that I need my time to relax,” he said of his parishioners. “Priestly ministry is very taxing spiritually, emotionally; I’m tired at the end of the day, but I’m not physically exhausted as if I was chopping wood all day or working on the farm.”
Burning off physical energy at the same level his spirituality and mind are used each day helps balance his wellbeing.
Even though Baldwin is 61, he has been dedicated to CrossFit since 2010. He’s always had a love for fitness, playing high school sports, intramurals in college and even a 40-and-over soccer league in Dallas. In the 1990s and 2000s, he worked out in several group fitness classes and practiced karate, achieving a black belt in about four years.
“I’ve always liked athletic things to test your abilities,” Baldwin said.
In 2010, he began doing CrossFit in Workout of the Day classes. He works out about six days a week. His progress is tracked and measurable, which can help anyone stay on track. The most he’s deadlifted is 365 pounds.
“When the weather is warmer, I also bike. Saturday I might go to CrossFit in the morning and go for a couple-hour bike ride in the afternoon,” he said, adding he’s the oldest man at the gym.
Spirituality is always intertwined in Father Gadberry’s exercises, but not in set prayers. Instead of just counting reps, which “gets boring very quickly, I’ve gone through the Ten Commandants in my head for each rep ... Or I’ll go through the seven sacraments. Or let’s say I’m doing something for 15 times — Father, Son, Spirit, Mary, Joseph. It’s a mind game; it’s easier for me to say their name five times and at the same time it’s a prayer.”
Baldwin said physical health can help spiritual wellbeing.
“If I’m doing 800 meters or a mile rowing, I know how many Our Fathers and Hail Marys it’s going to take me to row so far. I think when your body is feeling better, you’re more open to God. When you feel better physically you feel better spiritually about yourself,” he said. “… A day without working out is like a day without praying. You need to do both.”
All the physical work goes back to faith and Father Gadberry wants to use it to evangelize to a wider audience. He has applied for casting to NBC’s “American Ninja Warrior,” a reality show that puts contestants through challenging obstacle courses, culminating in the national finals in Las Vegas.
“Physical fitness I enjoy doing it, that’s a gift God has given me. When God gives us gifts, we have to use them. It would be a great avenue a great opportunity to say, ‘Look, here’s a gift God gave me.’” Father Gadberry said.
If he is cast, Father Gadberry said he hopes to win “because I’m a competitor,” but more than that, he wants to be an example for others facing obstacles in life, to know God is with them through it all.
“Encourage them to take those obstacles and win,” he said.
While Father Gadberry has several tips for getting started (see sidebar), Baldwin admits that CrossFit especially can be unintentionally intimidating.
“I have a son who was very intimated by CrossFit until he learned no one is paying attention to you,” he said, referring to his son Beau Baldwin, organist and director of music at the Cathedral of St. Andrew in Little Rock. He now does CrossFit and Deacon Baldwin’s two daughters also work out.
One of the top reasons people quit a gym membership is “I just couldn’t make the time,” Baldwin said. But, in gyms that have CrossFit or other programs, several will have childcare areas or allow children inside.
“My philosophy is you always find time for the things that are important to you in life whether it’s work, vacationing, whether it’s praying, being a good Christian or working out, you’ve got to make time for it,” he said.
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